The politics of QoS

When Lev Gonick implemented a streaming video system at California State University in Monterey Bay, he expected every department in the school would clamor for it. What the chief technology officer didn't expect was just how vocal each department would be about fighting for its network rights, right down to the point of helping define the policies that make the video system run smoothly.

The input Gonick receives for making quality-of-service (QoS) and network policy decisions "goes way beyond just the university's network engineers," he says, adding that representatives from administration to academics to physical plant make up a group which meets regularly to discuss how the network is used.

Vendors from Cisco to the smallest network gear start-up tout the value of QoS and policy-based network features. A recent survey of network professionals by Framingham, Mass., research firm IDC shows that QoS is being adopted by many corporations. QoS and policies define how network resources are to be provisioned among users, applications or hosts, and resources may be provisioned by hand or automatically based on time of day or user access rights.

However, many IS professionals are finding that the issues involved in rolling out a policy-based network with QoS can often be as political as they are technical.

QoS became a necessity on Gonick's network as the university began introducing high-bandwidth applications, such as voice over IP and streaming video. Gonick uses the Layer 3 priority queuing features in the Alcatel OmniCore 5052 switches in his backbone net to meter out bandwidth.

"The fact that we can get [high levels] of service begs the question - who or what gets that level of service, and why?" Gonick says.

Students at Cal State can download streaming video versions of courses if they miss a class. Various departments also use the system to hold video conferences. Gonick says QoS makes these services possible.

"[QoS] technology has enabled us to engage in some very important policy discussions on how our network is used," Gonick says.

QoS is one of many factors that has forced network professionals to become more involved in companies' overall business planning, says Elisabeth Rainge, a LAN infrastructure analyst with IDC.

"When you think of QoS, you tend to think of it in terms of slow, medium and fast speeds on a network. No one wants to be the one who gets the slow speeds," she says.

More often, "network people are being forced to work with other groups in a company to decide policy issues," Rainge says. "Deciding on network priorities is very much a consensus decision."

Working as a team may be important, but knowing the applications on your network inside and out is paramount when setting up QoS policies, says Nick Figliuolo, director of technology at Munroe Regional Medical Center in Ocala, Fla.

While many departments in the hospital give input on network priorities, it's ultimately the IS department that makes the decisions on network policies, Figliuolo says. He and his staff have the most comprehensive knowledge of where QoS should be applied.

"What it boils down to is knowing your environment, what's connected to what and what kind of data is running down certain pipes," he says. "[My staff is] very savvy with how the hospital works."

In Munroe Medical Center's radiology department, digital X-ray images as large as 1G byte are regularly sent around the network for doctors to examine. To manage this huge bandwidth demand in that area of the hospital, Figliuolo uses the the virtual LAN (VLAN) features of his Alcatel switches to segment off the radiology department, and the IEEE 802.1p priority tagging to make the radiology images the highest priority on that VLAN. Additionally, the hospital is planning to install voice over IP in the near future, which will also require the application of QoS, Figliuolo says.

"There are lots of different ways of slicing and dicing the bandwidth" using QoS, Figliuolo says. "I can set up a separate VLAN for just the radiology images, and a separate VLAN for workstations and phones, then give the images the highest priority so nothing interferes with them."

In addition to the QoS decisions made by Figliuolo's group, the hospital must adjust its network policies based on the federal government's Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA). HIPPA requires certain hospital records to be completely digital, and to have a standard level of data encryption for patient data.

According to Eric Thompson, an analyst with the Gartner Group in Stamford, Conn., some users are opting for the brute force method of providing QoS - buying more network equipment, instead of finessing network resources with policies and QoS.

"You can still throw a lot of bandwidth at a user from a corporate IT standpoint and give them what they need," Thompson says, because faster network technology keeps getting less expensive.

IDC predicts the average price per switch port for Gigabit Ethernet will drop from more than $1,000 a year ago to $335 by 2003, making it easier for network professionals to throw bandwidth and large applications by the gigabit. Still, Thompson says, the need for QoS will remain for time-sensitive applications such as voice and video.

"Companies will simply have to implement QoS in order to keep employees happy on a [voice-over-IP] network," Thompson adds.

At the University of Southern California, there's voice traffic, and then everything else, says James Wiedel, USC's director of network technology. USC uses ATM to prioritize voice-over-IP traffic that travels between the main campus and 10 branch campuses.

"I've barely turned on the QoS features" of the Enterasys SmartSwitch 6000s that make up the campus backbone, Wiedel says. On the LAN, SmartSwitches' traffic classification settings still prioritize voice, he says, but it's every packet for itself for all other traffic.

Wiedel's answer for providing QoS is to install more equipment when bandwidth gets tight. Wiedel cites the low cost of Gigabit Ethernet equipment as the answer to any contentions over bandwidth among the school's 30,000 end-users.

"We're a little unusual for a university in that I control the network down to a jack in the wall," Wiedel says. This level of control gives him more freedom to call the shots on network policy. Arguing with faculty, staff and administrators over how to do network polices and QoS is not worth the time or hassle, he says.

"That's the major headache with QoS," Wiedel says. "You get tied up all the time dealing with people who want higher priority than the next person. Network equipment is cheap; it's the running of it, day in and day out, that can come and bite you."

"If you overengineer in the first place, you eliminate the headaches . . . you make everybody happy. That's part of the whole QoS concept -- to make everybody happy," he says.

This story, "The politics of QoS" was originally published by Network World.

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